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December 2, 2022

Hearing loss

amazon-echo-dot-charcoal-front-on-370.jpgSome technologies fail because they aren't worth the trouble (3D movies). Some fail because the necessary infrastructure and underlying technologies aren't good enough yet (AI in the 1980s, pen computing in the 1990s). Some fail because the world goes another, simpler, more readily available way (Open Systems Interconnection). Some fail because they are beset with fraud (the fate that appears to be unfolding with respect to cryptocurrencies), And some fail even though they work as advertised and people want them and use them because they make no money to sustain their development for their inventors and manufacturers.

The latter appears to be the situation with smart speakers, which in 2015 were going to take over the world, and today, in 2022, are installed in 75% of US homes. Despite this apparent success, they are losing money even for market leaders Amazon (third) and Google (second), as Business Insider reported this week. Amazon's Worldwide Digital division, which includes Prime Video as well as Echo smart speakers and Alexa voice technology, lost $3 billion in the first quarter of this year alone, primarily due to Alexa and other devices. The division will now be the biggest target for the layoffs the company announced last week.

The gist: they thought smart speakers would be like razors or inkjet printers, where you sell the hardware at or below cost and reap a steady income stream from selling razor blades or ink cartridges. Amazon thought people would buy their smart speakers, see something they liked, and order the speaker to put through the purchase. Instead, judging from the small sample I have observed personally, people use their smart speakers as timers, radios, and enhanced remote controls, and occasionally to get a quick answer from Wikipedia. And that's it. The friends I watched order their smart speaker to turn on the basement lights and manage their shopping list have, as far as I could tell on a recent visit, developed no new uses for their voice assistant in three years of being locked up at home with it.

The system has developed a new feature, though. It now routinely puts the shopping list items on the wrong shopping list. They don't know why.

In raising this topic at The Overspill, Charles Arthur referred back to a 2016 Wired aritcle summarizing venture capitalist Mary Meeker's assessment in her annual Internet Trends report that voice was going to take over the world and the iPhone had peaked. In slides 115-133, Meeker outlined her argument: improving accuracy would be a game-changer.

Even without looking at recent figures, it's clear voice hasn't taken over. People do use speech when their hands are occupied, especially when driving or when the alternative is to type painfully into their smartphone - but keyboards still populate everyone's desks, and the only people I know who use speech for data entry are people for whom typing is exceptionally difficult.

One unforeseen deterrent may be that privacy emerged as a larger issue than early prognosticators may have expected. Repeated stories have raised awareness that the price of being able to use a voice assistant at will is that microphones in your home listen to everything you say waiting for their cue to send your speech to a distant server to parse. Rising consciousness of the power of the big technology companies has made more of us aware that smart speakers are designed more to fulfill their manufacturers' desires to intermediate and monetize our lives than to help us.

The notion that consumers would want to use Amazon's Echo for shopping appears seriously deluded with hindsight. Even the most dedicated voice users I know want to see what they're buying. Years ago, I thought that as TV and the Internet converged we'd see a form of interactive product placement in which it would be possible to click to buy a copy of the shirt a football player was wearing during a game or the bed you liked in a sitcom. Obviously, this hasn't happened; instead a lot of TV has moved to streaming services without ads, and interactive broadcast TV is not a thing. But in *that* integrated world voice-activated shopping would work quite well, as in "Buy me that bed at the lowest price you can find", or "Send my brother the closest copy you can find of Novak Djokovic's dark red sweatshirt, size large, as soon as possible, all cotton if possible."

But that is not our world, and in our world we have to make those links and look up the details for ourselves. So voice does not work for shopping beyond adding items to lists. And if that doesn't work, what other options are there? As Ron Amadeo writes at Ars Technica, the queries where Alexa is frequently used can't be monetized, and customers showed little interest in using Alexa to interact with other companies such as Uber or Domino's Pizza. And, even Google, which is also cutting investment in its voice assistant, can't risk alienating consumers by using its smart speaker to play ads. Only Apple appears unaffected.

"If you build it, they will come," has been the driving motto of a lot of technological development over the last 30 years. In this case, they built it, they came, and almost everyone lost money. At what point do they turn the servers off?


Illustrations: Amazon Echo Dot.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter and/or Mastodon.